There is hardly a piece of public art on this campus that isn’t a little bit strange. There’s Blueno, a giant blue teddy bear with a lamp impaling its spine up through its head. On the Main Green, there’s a fake tree with a large rock sitting comfortably on its tallest branches. Sure, there are some basic statues of old men on horses. But then there are those children, those 11 figures joining arms, each with one leg thrust into the air in jubilation—except for the one child with both legs flying, overcome with excitement.
Circle Dance stands on an intersection already so crowded with students that one may wonder why the University decided to add 11 more children to the mix. Inspired by the famous painting La Danse by Henri Matisse, artist Tom Friedman created a faceless and indistinct interpretation out of aluminum roasting pans. The final sculpture still features the engravings from the pans, causing many students to ask, Is it really made of aluminum? How is it so sturdy? These questions are answered on a small plaque so shrouded by grass that it might as well be invisible: The original model was made of pans, but the final product is “highly polished stainless steel.”
On the bottom of this same faded plaque is an oft-overlooked line: “Please do not climb on the sculpture.” Brown’s own website showcases a violation of this rule, a picture of five students sitting on the shoulders, arms, and legs of the sculpture’s figures. To see something so expressive and joyful and not to join in on the fun is something of a lost opportunity, and no one knows this more than students coming to campus after a long summer. It is returning to an old friend, hearing music playing down the hall, and seeing if the door is open to ask if you can join. The figures in the sculpture are dancing, and it’s as if they call to students: Come and dance along.
For the first few months, people do. Parents take photos of their children locking arms and smiling with the faceless figures. Upon seeing the sculpture, students press their body weight to it, trying to see how sturdy it really is. But by the time assignments start to arrive and the leaves begin to change, I can sit on a bench across from the sculpture for an hour and find that no one pays it any mind anymore. By November, the initial confusion and intrigue has mostly vanished.
Instead, the sculpture stands there like a part of the scenery, blending into the grass and the air without much regard. There is a subset of people who still interact with the sculpture, but they go as unrecognized as the sculpture on an average day. Nobody notices if a student sits in the center of the circle working for hours. No one notices the little girl running in, out, and under the joined arms. Circle Dance does its job as public art—it catches your eye and then proceeds to rest there under the shadow of students and buildings, unnoticed unless you are looking for it.
I smile every time I pass the sculpture while walking south, walking north, walking past the students gathered around food trucks on Waterman Street. I like to imagine myself partaking in this circle with the same faceless glee, and I can only assume that was the hope of the anonymous donor who sent this to our campus. It is an apt contribution; college campuses are full of students who face ever-growing amounts of stress, and these jubilant children evoke the youthful glow that students are searching for in the midst of constant work. The statue depicts a sense of human spirit and the camaraderie of man!
It seems ridiculous that the spirit of a mere statue might actually affect anyone, but I have seen it happen. I remember the nervous smiles of my friends in the first week of freshman year as we walked around campus at night. We were at once scared and excited about this new beginning and clutched to the vague tethers we had created with one another as we passed the sculpture on our way to a party. As a group, we climbed under the arms and drunkenly goofed around, snapping poorly-lit pictures and laughing. There is a reason the tuft of grass in the center of the circle has faded away, leaving only a patch of dirt. Shenanigans have happened here. I have seen and been a part of many, and there are endless more that have gone undiscovered over the years.
As I was passing the sculpture with a friend one day, he proudly said to me, “I gave someone head in the middle of this once. I remember it fondly.”
I am sure no one even noticed.